Oil before food

Khartoum & Kadugli
April, 2001 (ACT)

War, drought and reckless oil exploitation threaten the lives of millions of people in Sudan. Vanessa Gordon meets victims of the war, watches oil money bubble in Khartoum and discovers some tough dilemmas confronting those who want to help

Two ragged women fall behind the small group of visiting aid workers and government officials. Once out of reach of prying ears they spit it out in a quick whisper: "We had no choice but to come here. Once the government had beaten back the rebels, the soldiers torched all our food, the fields and our huts. Then they told us to walk here."

Nervous government officials once again gather the group of visitors and lead the way further up the small hillside where some 130 families of the Nuba people build new homes. By chance, the group walk past a girl of some two years with extensive and untreated burn wounds on her left arm and elbow.

"What happened to her?" someone asks. The answer comes promptly and without consulting the girl's mother: "She was wounded in the crossfire with the rebels." An awkward embarrassment comes over the party as the officials usher their guests on.

Since December last year, rebel forces in the area have experienced a series of defeats. As a result some 30.000 Nuba have returned to government controlled parts of the Nuba Mountains. "Voluntary returnees" according to the local government, which is busy resettling these people in villages within their control.

"We all love Yousif!" whispers a local priest at another chance encounter outside reach of the otherwise tight government security arrangement surrounding this rare visit of foreigners to the Nuba Mountains.

"Yousif " is shorthand for Yousif Kuwa, the seriously ill rebel commander of the Nuba branch of the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA). Since the late 1980's Yousif Kuwa has spearheaded a popular revolt in the inaccessible mountains and he is arguably the most popular SPLA commander in all of the rebel-controlled parts of Sudan. Just weeks after this conversation took place, Yuosif Kuwa died from his illness.

Commander Kua's popularity could appear astonishing when considering that the war in the Nuba Mountains has led to some of the worst civilian suffering in the continuing Hell-hole which is Sudan's civil war. But if anything, the government's scorched earth warfare has only added to the old animosity between the Nuba people and the central authorities in the capital Khartoum.

The civil war, the second since Sudan's independence in 1956, started in 1983 when southern Sudanese revolted against a political weakening of the south and against the introduction of Islamic laws (Sharia).

The rebellion also broke out because the northern dominated government had started large scale oil and water projects. These projects - oil drilling in Upper Nile and the Jonglei Canal - were based on exploiting the resources of the south. The predominantly African population in the south were convinced they would not benefit from these projects.

In 1984 foreign oil workers fled Upper Nile as attacks by SPLA made life and work there impossible. For almost 15 years the oil remained untouched but in 1999, with the completion of a pipeline from Upper Nile to Port Sudan on the Red Sea, oil exploration reappeared as a major issue in the war.

Oil before food
The ruthlessness - even by Sudanese standards - of the war in the Nuba Mountains have several reasons. A major reason runs as an almost straight line along the main road to the largest Nuba town, Kadugli.

It's the very pipeline, which shunts oil from the newly developed oilfields south of the mountains to its destination in northern Sudan. The pipeline, marked every 500 meters by yellow or red warning signs, is buried under a low vault of earth changing from black to dusty red as it ploughs through different soil types. Whatever it's colour, the pipeline is watched over by military check points every five km with additional mobile units walking up and down the road at all times.

This pipeline - running an amazing 1,600 kilometre - is the vulnerable main artery of the Sudanese government's newly found riches and rebels must be kept away from it at any cost.

As the war continues in the mountains, aid workers and local leaders in lower lying towns such as Kadugli and Dilling expect a continued influx of displaced people from the war zones. Government forces are on the offensive and seem bend on extending the security perimeter around the pipeline and access roads to the oil operations.
Reports from churches and local authorities in Upper Nile - some 200 km further south of the Nuba Mountains and in the oil areas - confirm that they need assistance for some 60,000 people displaced by continued fighting in the area.

The last couple of years the Sudanese army and allied militias have been waging a savage war in Upper Nile, leaving the areas around oil installations and supply roads virtually empty of the original population. Hundreds have been killed in attacks on civilian villages. Tens of thousands have been forced to flee their homesteads. In some of the worst documented cases, children, women and elderly have been burned alive, trapped inside their huts as they were torched by army and militia soldiers.

Oil induced misery
When asked to explain what is going on in his home area, an elder leader from Bentiu in Upper Nile lapses into a convoluted tale of personal rivalries between renegade rebel gangs, government instigated plots and ferocious looting parties defying all control but their lust for booty and price money.

Details of his tale may be beyond the comprehension of most outsiders but the conclusion is not to be missed. While oil valued at as much as US $ one billion per year is being pumped out under their very feet, large sections of the local Nuer and Dinka population are worse off than they ever were before.

Starved and displaced, the legitimate owners of this oil rich land are at the mercy of the bush and the occasional relief agency.

In a camp for displaced not far from the Nuba mountains, an angry chief cannot hold his tongue: "What kind of a life is this. We were forced to flee our land and now we just sit here waiting. Waiting for what? And even here the Arabs (local slang for northern Sudanese) snatch our young boys for their militias and send them off to die in a war against their own brothers."

The chief, a tall man of maybe 50 years, speaks with a booming anger and backs his words up with hefty punches in the air. The eyes are red and bloodshot and his breath reveals the source of some of this unusual courage in the face of high ranking security personnel - several glasses of a cheap local brew. But his anger and indignation should not be dismissed as just a drunkard's ravings - the brew only helps him state what others fear to even whisper.

Oiling peace, fueling war
Recently detailed reports from journalists, human rights organisations and the British charity Christian Aid have presented first hand testimony to the fact, that the oil exploitation is causing massive human suffering and has deepened the crisis in Sudan.

At the end of March, the UN's Human Rights Raporteur for Sudan, Gerhart Baum returned from a visit to Sudan and reported that "I gathered further evidence that oil exploitation leads to an exacerbation of the conflict with serious consequences on civilians".

Churches and rights organisations have launched a campaign to hold companies in countries like the UK, Sweden and Canada accountable for their involvement in the Sudanese oilfields. Other major foreign players include Chinese and Malaysian companies as well as British and German suppliers of pipelines, pump stations and other essential equipment.

Among the allegations against companies such as Sweden's Lundin Oil or Canada's Talisman Energy are eyewitness accounts to the effect that oil company roads and airfields are being used by government forces when they attack people living in the oil areas.

The Sudanese government and the foreign companies dismiss the reports of human rights violations and atrocities tied closely to their activities. Carl Bildt, a former Swedish prime minister and currently a UN representative to the Balkans, sits on the board of Lundin Oil.

In a March 22 press statement, Mr. Bildt stated that he was "convinced that the foreign presence and not least the oil are possibilities for peace and development in Sudan in the long term."

The sweet smell of new money
Approaching Khartoum on the main road from the Nuba Mountains and the oil fields further south, its hard to imagine the war zone one has just left behind.

Traffic in Khartoum seems to have at least doubled over the last years. Fuel trucks, nowhere to be seen in the days of hyper inflation and fuel queues in the mid 1990's, race up and down main roads supplying sparkling new fuel stations in the suburbs and in towns down the course of the Nile.

On the outskirts of the capital, homes the size of small hotels and built in lavish Saudi Arabian style, pop up where once were just sandy dessert.

A few Internet cafés advertise along the road to and from the airport. In the city centre music from restaurants and computer game shops add a new layer to the street noise and the frequent prayer calls radiating from an ever increasing number of minarets and mosques across town.

Money has returned to Khartoum on a scale challenging the times before 1989, when a National Islamic Front instigated military coup put the current President, Omar al Beshir, into the old palace down by the Blue Nile Promenade.

Something else may be changing too. The stern faced Islamic Sharia code so vigorously enforced only a few years ago seems to be slowly giving way to the kind of sneaking Westernization which comes with the smell of new money and spoiled upper class kids.

Teenage boys have taken to jeans and untied sneakers as they hang out around Internet cafés exchanging DVD's and video copies of the latest American blockbusters. Their young sisters still cover their heads and torso in traditional Sudanese tobs but the colours are brighter, the patterns starker and the tob often only serves to enhance the expressive fashion statements worn underneath.

An uninformed visitor could almost be excused for thinking that some of the Islamic zealots surrounding Omar el Beshir are too busy counting their share of the new oil money to watch over their sons' and daughters' moral virtues.

Another change, but this one follows a trend seen for more than a decade: The number of southern Sudanese living in Khartoum continue to grow. Walking through the centre and many sections of the suburbs every other face bears the distinct African traits of a child, man or woman from southern or western Sudan. Some 2.5 millions southerners and westerns have been displaced by war and drought to Greater Khartoum.

The displaced, like 99,9 % of the Sudanese population, live way outside the oil bubble's posh mansions, and cannot even dream of ever hanging out in Internet cafés. Where they live, not even snail mail would reach.

Outside the bubble
The hut is tiny and made up of red mud and left over relief cartoons. Taken aback by a surprise visit of a couple of aid workers, a woman tries to get up from her bed just inside the torn bag serving as her front door. Not even with the help of two friends can she make it to her feet. In the half darkness of the hut, she looks like a grandmother but her youngest child is just three years old.

TB, HIV - nobody knows what's eating up this woman, but it seems evident that her four children may soon join the swelling ranks of orphans roaming the streets of Khartoum in their perpetual search for food and shelter.

"Dar el Salama" - a Place of Peace - is the government's name for this camp for displaced on the outskirts of the Khartoum. The inhabitants have another name for Dar el Salama - they call it "Jabarona" - we have been forced - or when identifying a particular bad part of the camp: Rass Sheytan - Satan's Head.

Here - within half an hour's drive from government ministries, the five star hotels of the foreign oil workers or the offices of UN and other relief agencies - hundreds of children gather everyday in feeding centres for the most malnourished. The last time the authorities allowed a nutritional study in the camps were in 1998, then 12 % of the children were found to be malnourished.

Currently local and international churches co-operate to feed some 4.000 children in several camps. But donor fatigue and constant obstacles put in place by local authorities may soon conspire to close down even these projects. By mid-April several of the feeding centres look set to shut down leaving thousands of mothers and children with nobody to turn to.

Local authorities occasionally allow aid agencies to offer some minimal services to the camps. On the other hand, bulldozers are repeatedly sent in to demolish homes or entire camps with just a few hours notice. The result is that the displaced continue to be weak, disorganised and constantly on the move. Cheap labour for the bubble economy.

Drought, delays and dilemmas
The number of displaced around Khartoum and in other parts of Sudan could increase dramatically in the coming months.

The war in the south is likely to intensify until the end of this year's dry season in May. Continued expulsions of the people living in "promising" oil fields will prompt further disasters. Lastly a severe drought is spreading in western, eastern and southern parts of Sudan leaving wells and ponds dry and pastures yellow-brown.

All these factors could conspire to send large numbers of people migrating for food and safety while making relief efforts even more difficult than normal in Sudan.

UN agencies have appealed for some US $ 244 millions of aid for Sudan in 2001. By the end of March only a fraction of that money was secured, prompting the UN to warn of an impending famine within a few months.

The slow donor response to the crisis in Sudan could have several explanations among them that major donations often come in with significant delays not only in Sudan but also in other chronic crisis areas like Ethiopia or Angola.

But another factor might be setting in. The international community has spent billions of dollars on relief in Sudan since the mid-1980. At the same time the Sudanese government has continued a war estimated to cost between $ 300 and 400 million per year.

International donors and aid agencies have long been wondering what they are actually doing with their "humanitarian assistance" in Sudan. Are aid agencies, while assisting people in need, allowing the government of Sudan and the rebel SPLA to perpetuate the war unburdened by their obligation to fend for their own people in need?

Off the record many experienced aid workers volunteer a: "Yes, at least to some extend". But it is quickly followed up with what is referred to as the "humanitarian imperative" - or in this case the "humanitarian dilemma":

"Do we have a choice? If we don't feed the hungry, the government or the SPLA will let them die. Can you let people die from hunger just because they happen to be born in the wrong place?" This dilemma is by no means new to donors and humanitarian workers in Sudan or for that matter a number of other chronic emergencies across the world.

What is new in the Sudanese context, is the oil money.

In 2000, the Sudanese government suddenly had an estimated extra $ 200 - 300 million oil dollars which it could plough into an escalation of the war while the same government expects aid agencies to feed the very people famished by that very war.

No wonder if donors are increasingly weary of "picking up the bill" from Sudan's seemingly endless civil war.
A similar dilemma confronted international donors in Ethiopia and Eritrea last year, when a drought put millions of lives at risk just as these two countries were engaged in a costly border war. To some extend donors tried to hold off from funding humanitarian work there, arguing that if Ethiopia and Eritrea would put an end to the war, the hunger could be managed with much less outside assistance.

That position, rational as it appeared on one level, held up only until a series of grim and emotive television pictures flickered across screens in Europe and North America and public pressure pushed donors and aid agencies into rapid action.

Come June or July this year, a similar series of events could be repeated - only this time the images of starving children will not come from Gode in Ethiopia but from villages in southern and western Sudan.


Vanessa Gordon has covered events in Sudan for more than a decade. She just returned from a visit to government controlled parts of the country.


Action by Churches Together (ACT) International